Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances written by Steven Moffatt and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: ‘Are you my mummy?’

U-Boat Captain: Christopher Eccleston gives his most assured performance in this story (his best of the season is still Dalek but this is his most confident), you can see how bold he is in the part at this point and if he was as fatigued as reported behind the scenes it never once affects his portrayal. I particularly like his relationship with Nancy which is very different to how he treats Rose, she initially doesn’t want anything to do with him but he wins her over simply by being gentle and understanding with her. He can read her easily and tell that she has lost somebody to the war, something he can empathise with. His pained expression when he realises the truth about his bomb dropping faux pas is wonderful. Being a cat lover I find his little chat with the cat in the darkened alley very sweet, just like when Matt Smith did the same in The Lodger. Astonishing how well he gets on with the kids, he talks their lingo and doesn’t patronise them. The Doctor knows exactly what it's like to be the one kid left out in the cold - between this and the 'lonely child' description in The Girl in the Fireplace, the new series is painting a dark picture of his childhood. The script rather hilariously takes the piss out of his huge honker and radar dish ears and Eccleston doesn't seem to mind one jot. In nine centuries he has learnt to cope with the name Doctor and its many connotations. His ‘go to your room’ solution is inspired; only the Doctor would think to fight zombies by playing the disgruntled parent. One of the ways this show differs from others is in the Doctor's quirky approach to solving problems. When he gets upset he likes to insult species. It’s wonderful that the Doctor tries to empathise with the child; he’s almost consumed with his anger and fear as he listens to the tape of his interview with Dr Constantine. In a not very subtle 'yours is bigger than mine' penis metaphor the Doctor is embarrassed by his sonic screwdriver in comparison to Jack's far more sophisticated hardware. I love that he tries very hard not be insulted because Rose lusts after Jack whilst she doesn’t consider him a dancer. He’s so sweet and inexperienced when it comes to women which is kind of ironic considering how many pretty girls have accompanied him on his travels. You'd think he would have picked something up over the years but clearly he just wasn't paying attention. The fact that he is so rubbish with the ladies in comparison to Jack makes him all the more appealing. All this sitcom material (half of it has walked straight out of Coupling) should be horrendous but somehow it really works because it’s played very warmly. Something that is lost later on in Moffat's time as show runner where there lust dominates. He’s got the moves but he doesn’t want to boast…besides he is too busy resonating concrete to get down to any serious dancing. After all the angst and darkness of the early episodes it is very satisfying that Moffat gives the Doctor such a triumphant denouement (‘Give me a day like this, give me this one!’). You can’t not have a huge smile on your face as he throws the nanogenes at all the infected people and saves everybody's lives. It's rare that Doctor Who makes you feel this good.

Chavvy Chick: If Christopher Eccleston has come to terms with his part, Billie Piper is unstoppable at this point. She is taking her Union Jack T-shirt out for a test drive and looks hotter than ever. You can only imagine Billie Piper's reaction when she read a script that featured her character hanging from a barrage balloon with the British flag plastered all over her chest as enemy fighters advance on her! Under any circumstances that is a winning scenario...except perhaps for Rose. She is deliriously flirtatious with Jack; footloose, fancy free and very available. ‘I went by barrage balloon?’ – this is the angst free, effortlessly hip season one through and through. At this point in her time on the show she is the hottest, most charismatic companion the show has ever been graced with. What happened next season? Perhaps she should have been a one season wonder like Eccleston. She trusts Jack because he is like the Doctor but with dating and dancing. There's a gorgeous moment when she gifts Nancy with the knowledge that the British win the war.

Horny Hunk: John Barrowman bursts onto the scene in an unforgettable fashion, giving possibly his most self-assured performance in the show. At this stage he has got nothing to lose. He’s certainly never been as central to the plot since. It's so refreshing for there to be a bi-sexual character so brazenly turn up in telefantasy that isn't a lesbian (because for some reason that gets a pass far more than a suggestions of male/male canoodling). He tries the psychic paper trick but winds up handing Rose a piece of paper saying he is single and he works out. He tries never to discuss business with a clear head. He turns on Big Ben’s clock face when Rose asks what the time is – I love his style! Jack likes to think of himself as a criminal and Rose is happy to finally meet a professional at this sort of thing. I love the fact that you have no idea that Jack will be a companion at this point. He's just a run of the mill conman with a secret past who is trying to earn a quick buck to buy it back. Jack and the banana is hilarious (‘Don’t drop the banana!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Good source of potassium!’) - what other fruit would he be found gripping but the most phallic? He woke up one morning and found the time agency had stolen two years of his life. That's a riveting back story that is crying out to be filled but has been little lost given his convoluted timeline that plays out in Torchwood and Doctor Who. Unlike Adam, you can see a future for somebody like Jack in the series, especially in the wake of his self sacrifice with the bomb.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Bloomin’ Germans don’t they eat? Don’t you eat?
‘1941. Right now not very far from here the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny amp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing the lot of you. Dunno what you do to Hitler but you frighten the hell out of me.’
‘They just…don’t die.’
‘The world doesn’t end cause the Doctor dances…’
‘Dr Constantine! My legs’ grown back! When I came to the hospital I had one leg!’ ‘Well there is a war on, is it possible you mis counted?’

The Good Stuff: You can tell that James Hawes is eager to paint a vivid picture of war torn London from his first pan down the washing lines that settles on the materialising TARDIS. Is this the only Doctor Who story to take place entirely at night? I expect so given how much night time filming is? The Doctor stumbles in on a secret nightclub; candles, smoke and sultry singing, its all beautifully evocative. Is this an illicit homosexual night spot as there seems to be an inordinate amount of same sex couples together? The Mill have proven an extraordinary catch for Doctor Who and have provided some glorious CGI for the series but The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is where they really get show what they can do. There are some deliriously good special effects in this tale, the moon glistening on the Thames, spotlights reaching into the sky, explosions claiming buildings and enemy planes tearing through the night like a swarm of insects. It's not just a case of creating CGI landscapes here, there is something expressionistic and romantic about the images that they produce. Clearly these are special effects that Billie Piper has been superimposed over but they are beautiful, artistic images. I cannot believe that is the first time we have had the police box phone ring. Once we transported to Jack's time ship I felt as if I was back at home in classic Who (the design is not dissimilar to Glitz's old rust bucket in Dragonfire). Domestic dinner scenes that glow with wit and warmth, the scenes between the Doctor, Nancy and the kids are exactly the kind of personable material that 80s Who lacked. Hawes clearly loves his horror movies and I love the tilted angle shots of the child silhouetted against the front door. Simple, but enough to put the wind up you. Moffat manages to drop information about the nanogenes early on, setting up his climax invisibly. Drinking champagne on an invisible spaceship tethered to Big Ben in an air raid…has Doctor Who ever been as cool as this before? I bet Davies wept when he read the script, figuring that the seasons budget would have to poured into Moffat's tale. Silhouetting the gorgeous Jack and Rose against Big Ben’s clock face and dancing to Glen Miller – could this story get any hotter? It's great that they managed to slow down the pace and allow for some excellent character work and atmosphere. I know that approach wasn't popular with the BBC (who asked Davies to jazz up the historical adventures for series two) but it makes all the difference. Richard Wilson has finally appeared in Doctor Who – I can die happy! His one scene is very intense and in one line Moffat manages to say everything you need to know about the character with some depth (‘Before this war I was a father and a grandfather. Now I’m neither but I’m still a Doctor’). Now there's economy. The bodies in the hospital all have the same injuries and their gas masks are fused to their faces. That's a ghoulish idea. Constantine’s bone splitting transformation is one of the nastiest moments you will find in Doctor Who. It is one moment where the sound effects really add a spine chilling edge to the visuals. You can actually see the blankness behind Jamie’s mask; he is literally an empty child. Somehow that is even scarier. Fuck the sonic screwdriver, I want a squareness gun. ‘End of the tape…it ran out about 30 seconds ago’ – such a simple fright and yet highly effective. Moffat is extremely good at that, at concocting simple scares that the classic series could have capitalised on (the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada and the Silence also apply). Back to good old classic Doctor Who tropes with monsters stalking our heroes through a disused hospital. Is Hawes channelling The Invasion of Time? Whatever, it gave me a rush of nostalgia that I really appreciated. ‘You feel like you’re going to be sick like something’s forcing its way up your throat!’ – that’s a horrible sensation and is played for real (and the soldiers chilling scream of ‘MUMMY!’ gives me chills every time). I love the dizzying rush towards the child as he activates his soldiers to protect the ship, more impressive direction. The answer to how the gas-masked zombies came about is surprisingly plausible, as mentioned set up much earlier in the story. There’s a beautiful, tear jerking and distressingly simple revelation that has been spelt out to us throughout the story and yet still comes as a total surprise – Nancy is the child’s mother. How did I miss that when it had been smacked over my head for the past 90 minutes? As soon as the gorgeous underscoring piano kicks in and the boy confronts his mum I always well up, it's one of the most satisfying plot twists because it ties a neat bow around everything we have seen in a very emotional way. Jack catches the bomb and straddles it…could this guy be any more camp? There’s a beautiful, happy ending where everybody survives, you wouldn’t want every story to be like this but just this once it's very heart warming. Dancing in the console room, has the TARDIS ever been lit this gorgeously before? It's a triumphant ending that sees the TARDIS crew up to three charismatic, confident characters. The future looks bright indeed.

The Bad Stuff: The very first shot of the hospital ship flying through the vortex looks like a bottle cap hanging from a string. Perhaps they were trying to capture the classic series a little too authentically. I didn't get the point of the other reference to homosexuality in the story, the superfluous off screen relationship between Arthur and the butcher. What was that all about?

The Shallow Bit: John Barrowman oozes charisma from every pore in his body and he’s damn hot to boot. You should hate somebody who can act, dance, sing and is strikingly attractive but somehow he’s extremely likable too. Git

Result: The highlight of the first season of NuWho, this is a frightening tale which generates its scares through the performances and the subtlest of effects and direction. A horror tale that understands the genre and allows the time to build up an atmosphere. As such it’s the most ‘classic Who’ story yet with an appropriately slower pace, a stirring location, some freakish faceless monsters and a Doctor/companion combo that positively twinkle. In all those respects this is the Pyramids of Mars for the next generation. Moffat’s first script is still one of his best, managing to tell a wartime story whilst avoiding all the clichés and a fine science fiction story at the same time with plenty of gorgeous lines for everybody and some unexpected moments of poignancy. It’s a beautifully realised piece as well, evocatively all shot at night and with some stylish touches that really make this an under the duvet experience. John Barrowman joins the cast and he makes an instant impression and by the end of the tale the Doctor, Rose and Jack make for a blissful trio of regulars. All in all this is one of the strongest Doctor Who stories you are likely to see, just when you think its going to end with a load of technobabble the story hits you with the most emotional of revelations. This is what Moffat was producing when he only had to deliver one story a year and I really miss those days. A top ten classic: 10/10


Martin Hudecek said...

Like I said on the Girl/Fireplace entry, I don't quite laud this as much as many fans do. For me the SM order pre 2010 is: GITF> Blink> TEC/TDD> SITL/FOTD.

Love the blog, keep up the fine work.

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David Pirtle said...

Not only is this the best ninth Doctor story, it's also one of the most vintage-feeling. Complaining to a cat about his companions wandering off, for instance, is the kind of thing I'd have loved to see Peter Davison do. There are loads of moments like that. I hardly ever regard a story as perfect, but this is one.